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Posts Tagged ‘Matthew 1’

A sermon preached at Wethersfield Evangelical Free Church, Wethersfield, Connecticut, USA on 3 December 2022

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Yesterday, Karen and I each celebrated a very special day in our home across the river in Portland.

We were there at the same time, breathing the same air, inhabiting the same space … walking the same dog.

But the special day we celebrated was different in each case. She had hers … and I had mine.

My special day was defined by USA vs. the Netherlands in the knock-out stage of the World Cup. Now I know that some of you don’t believe that the World Cup every fourth year represents the pinnacle of sports and that we should all join the rest of the world in just stopping everything else we were doing and taking in the spectacle. Can I just say, in a spirit of transparency, I just don’t get that. But we can talk about it at another time.

In any case, my special day was over before noon. It ended in sadness, to the tune of 3-1 Netherlands, USA goes home, seeya’ again in four years, hopefully this time with Colombia in the mix of national teams that classify. It’s so cruel…

On the other hand, Karen’s special day was just getting up its head of steam by noon as mine was ending in tears. It was a much happier celebration than mine: She turned our home into a Christmas miracle. 

The tree is up, more beautiful than ever, and lit so you can see it from the front street. The dining room is as Christmasy as a dining room can be, all ready for the onslaught of family that will begin in another two weeks. We calculate that we’ll even have enough chairs for everybody this year, which will represent a Hospitality Personal Best for the Baers.

In fact, it even smells like Christmas over there, and I have no idea how that even works.


So as of yesterday by about 4:30 in the afternoon, the Baers are ready for Christmas. 

Even though my special day was not such a happy one, it did have the silver lining of becoming the day when I begin my annual practice of re-reading the passages in our New Testament that tell what we’ve come to call ‘The Christmas Story’.

I love doing this. The combination of familiarity … on the one hand … and a fresh reading … on the other … are always life-giving for me. And I find that I’m once again captivated by one of the ‘bit players’ in the Christmas Drama: Joseph

In fact, if anybody asks me what I want for Christmas this year, my answer is gonna’ be this: I wanna’ be Joseph

Maybe I can persuade you to join me. Maybe our gift to those nearest to us this year can be being more like Joseph than we used to be.

Let me see whether I can find the words to tell you about this guy as I’m encountering him…

Joseph is like a neighbor whom I assumed I knew, but on further reflection I discover that I didn’t really know him at all.

Now Christian art and tradition—especially at this time of the year—provides for Joseph a large place. He kind of looms over the manger scenes you see around, like a slightly gawky uncle who hangs around but doesn’t say much. 

But in Scripture, Joseph is nearly always in the shadows of people who seem to be more important than he is. And then, when the scene has finished, Joseph is quickly forgotten.

Yet none of the Christmas Story would have happened if Joseph had not given his assent and played his role.

I find myself wondering whether I am willing to find my place in the shadows of people who are more important than I am. And whether I am prepared to be quickly forgotten.

All year long, I live a version of this question in my morning prayers. You see, I use a model for prayer that some of you use to shape your own spiritual discipline. 

You see, I’m an early riser, but I’m a cranky early riser.

I make my coffee, then I find my favorite chair, and I set the table for my conversation with God as some of you do ….

  • I am a Son – Deeply loved by God.
  • I am a Servant – Called to put the needs of others above myself.
  • I am a Steward – Called to invest what God has given me to the work of his kingdom.

More days than not, that second breathed prayer: I am a servant … called to put the needs of others above myself … plows the furrow that my life will follow for the next 14 or 15 hours. I can almost feel my heart settle into its rightful place as I make that daily affirmation of reality before God.

Though I wouldn’t have given it this name before yesterday, it strikes me now that it’s a kind of Joseph Prayer, one that our man Joseph might have been comfortable praying himself.

And now because of the unexpected turn of events that has Pastor Scott home sick and me standing here opening the Word of God for the People of God this morning, I can appropriately turn my own encounter with Joseph … overshadowed, obedient, forgettable Joseph … into a question for you, my sisters and brothers in Christ: Are you likely to choose a place in the shadows of people who are more important than you are? Are you willing to be quickly forgotten?

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Let’s dive into the biblical portrayal of Joseph.

Joseph is remembered only in the two ‘infancy narratives’ found in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2.

The Matthew account revolves around Joseph without exactly exalting him, while in Luke the focus is very much on Mary. 

In Matthew, Joseph receives something of the honor that would seem to be due to the husband of Mary and the father figure in the home of our Lord.  Still, he is hardly a highly revered figure in Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth. The spotlight falls on Joseph when the story requires it. But it doesn’t linger or stay with Joseph longer than it needs to.

For me, the most beguiling aspect of Joseph’s legacy is how he is not remembered. After the incident in Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve years old, Joseph is not mentioned again in the entire New Testament except in a few instances where Jesus is called ‘the son of Joseph’ or ‘the carpenter’s son’.

But already I am getting ahead of myself and forgetting Joseph almost before I have remembered him. This, it seems, happens often with Joseph, standing there in the shadows and vulnerable to our forgetfulness as important events swirl around him.

  • Let’s peer into Joseph’s legacy as it comes to us in Matthew 1.16—2.23.
    • a righteous man and unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace …

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.

Matthew 1:18-19 (ESV)

Now I wonder whether you learned this remarkable glimpse of Joseph the way I did in my youth. It’s a strange thing, because our English Bible translations going back to the King James Version get it right. Yet somehow I understood that Moses was just—obedient to God’s savage and unyielding Law—yet somehow at the same time unwilling to put Mary to shame. In this, my boyhood understanding of this fascinating passage, Joseph was more merciful than God’s Law. His heart won out over his head.

But the biblical text suggests that this was not his dilemma. In fact, because he was a just man, he was not willing to throw Mary under the bus as he could well have done if he had been out to protect his own reputation above all else. In Joseph, his alignment with God’s own heart was the very thing that moved him to treat Mary with nobility and kindness, even at the risk of his own name. God’s Law had formed him to be this kind of man.

Already, Joseph becomes a human figure, forced to accommodate competing claims, to make the most of a situation that is complex and not of his making. In his patriarchal culture, where it falls to Joseph to call the shots on how to deal with Mary and her situation, he risks himself to care for her, without telling us in any detail how he feels about the awkwardness of his situation.  Already, I begin to like this Joseph, to feel that he knows something about the competing claims on my life …

  • promptly responsive to God-given dreams and God-sent angels …

Lots of markers in this text describe not just the sequence of Joseph’s response, but the promptness of it.

When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him:

Matthew 1:24 (ESV)

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by nightand departed to Egypt …

Matthew 2:13-14 (ESV)

But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.

Matthew 2:19-21 (ESV)

Brothers and sisters, the languages of the Bible have their ways of giving us cues about the speed or the sloooooowwwneeees of the events they narrate to us. These texts in Matthew 1 and 2 show Joseph moving promptly to obey God’s strange commands to him in what must have been a deeply puzzling period of his once tame life. 

So this Christmas, I want to be more like Joseph, quickly responsive to God’s direction in my life.

But there’s more to Joseph if we read carefully between the lines. 

  • principled about sex and relationships …

When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

Matthew 1:24-25 (ESV)
  • responsible for his wife and child …


Do you like this guy as much as I do? Do you admire him?

I wonder how I passed him by so often and for so many years. But there he was, Joseph in the shadows, allowing others to claim the limelight.

I think again of that second line of my morning prayers: I am a Servant – Called to put the needs of others above myself. And I want to be Joseph this Christmas.

I mentioned that Joseph is more at the center, although never a dominating figure, in Matthew’s edition of the Christmas Story.

As it turns out, Joseph is remembered by Luke also. So he’s not an entirely forgettable character. He matters. There’s some weight to him. He’s a force.

He’s just very comfortable in the shadows.

I really, really like this Joseph dude…

So let’s see what Luke has to say.

I’m gonna’ roll Luke’s glimpses of Joseph out pretty quickly here. After all, Joseph is really a man in the shadows in this, the third of the three gospels, as Luke tells the Christmas Story from his particular angle of view.

Let’s remember that Luke is concerned to provide an almost professionally historical accounting of events. He says so in that memorable first paragraph of his two-volume work, one that starts with his gospel and then continues with what we call The Acts of the Apostles:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

Luke 1:1-4 (ESV)

So then he works his way through John the Baptist, King Herod, that feisty old couple Zechariah and Elizabeth, all the way up to the culminating announcement of Jesus’ imminent birth.

Now tune your ear to Joseph’s appearance. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Luke 1:26-33 (ESV)

Joseph is basically reduced to a genealogical marker and a silent partner to Mary, who is front and center and happens to be betrothed to this Joseph guy, who is otherwise unmentioned.

  • Luke 2.1-5, the census and the journey to Bethlehem …

Then, after a whole lot more very consequential stuff in a very long chapter 1, Luke’s second chapter begins with the engaged couple’s journey to Bethlehem. Again, listen carefully or you’ll miss Joseph-in-the-shadows.

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town.And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Luke 2:1-7 (ESV)

And Joseph also went up…

That’s all the press he gets!

  • Luke 2.15-19, the silent bystander as the shepherds visit and Mary contemplates …

Then here come the shepherds. Watch for Joseph…

When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Luke 2:15-20 (ESV)

I mean, we even get concluding summaries of Mary’s ponderings and the shepherds’ rejoicing. But where is Joseph? Invisible. And maybe content to be so.

  • Luke 2.22-35, the duty of Jerusalem, the parents’ marveling, and Simeon’s message to Mary …

Sadly, we don’t have time to read about Simeon, one of my favorite figures in the Christmas story—maybe I’m just drawn to the old dudes—except for this summary:

And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

Luke 2:33-35 (ESV)

So God is revealing long-kept secrets to human hearts, all of it having to do with the birth of this Infant King … and who gets a special talking-to from Simeon the aged prophet? Mary.

And where is Joseph. Invisible. Again.

  • Luke 2.41-52, twelve-year-old Jesus’ precocious wisdom in the temple and his parents’ consternation, which Mary speaks 

Now having told the Christmas Story, Luke compacts a lot of time into a few sentences in order to round out the picture of Jesus’ origins. Many of you will remember the amazing wisdom of the young Jesus, speaking in the temple precincts with Israel’s spiritual giants and public intellectuals. When his parents find him back in Jerusalem, utterly consternated by his behavior, who delivers the parental reprimand to the Young Messiah?

Mary. Joseph is silent. Not culpably silent, I think. Not irresponsibly. Just silent. Standing by, out of the limelight while the Lord accomplishes his greatest work.

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Then, as quickly as he has appeared at the beginning of two of the four gospels, Joseph is gone.

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I find this Joseph an interesting man. I would like to know him better, for I too often feel that I live in the shadows of people and events that are much larger than I am. I too often wonder whether I will be remembered, and—if so—how and by whom? Or, like Joseph, largely forgotten.

Yet, upon further reflection in the light of God’s coming near to us in Jesus, I wonder what would have happened if Joseph had not played his critical but overshadowed role in the events of Jesus’ birth. 

  • Would there have been no travel to Bethlehem with pregnant Mary?
  • No protecting of her honor when she fell pregnant under apparently shameful circumstances?
  • No hospitality to Babylonian astrologers who turned up with strange gifts in hand?
  • No careful performance of the duties that took the family to Jerusalem at the appropriate moments in Jesus’ life?

I don’t think I’ll be asked to play a part in anybody’s Christmas play this year.

But I want to be Joseph … willing to do the honorable thing in the shadow of those who do memorable things … willing to be forgotten if only Jesus will be remembered … willing to fade away if Jesus will only come more and more to the center of a growing circle of those who worship him.

Do you wanna’ join me in being Joseph this year?

My fear about preaching a message like this is that it will sentimentalize Joseph and even Christmas itself, kind of like a gauzy focus on a Hallmark Christmas movie. 

In reality, Christmas was and is an invasion of earth by the king of heaven and his armies. It’s not sentimental. It’s world-altering.

But in the midst of those events, Joseph was present and accounted for …. Quickly obedient … not needing the limelight.

So let us take up our small parts,  brothers and sisters, as our Lord does great things around us in this season that is best titled ‘Emanuel’: God is with us.

God be with you … and with our ailing pastor, who will have us back in 1 Samuel next week at this time and back into a series titled ‘Let Earth Receive Her King’.

May it be so. Amen.

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